The filmmakers of Meru follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3000-foot-high El Capitan Wall. Daniel Rutledge could not recommend it more.
This is a documentary blessed with a giddy combination of nigh perfect elements. It’s a study of human excellence in a form that naturally lends itself to being supremely cinematic, anchored by a main character who is deeply fascinating, all brought together by just the right filmmakers.
Scaling the El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes or safety gear is a ridiculously impressive feat and we’re so lucky it was captured on film in this way. Alex Honnold, the man who did it, is an extraordinary person, but not the most endearing chap. The same brain chemistry that allows him to conquer fears nobody else can means he can be brutally cold to his loved ones. That’s all part of what makes him ideal for a documentary like this—imagine Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash, but replace jazz music with rock climbing, and you’re on the right track.
Although seeing something like El Capitan on screen will never be quite like seeing it in real life, it’s remarkable how well it’s been captured here. There are really helpful digital touches to illustrate distances and climbing routes clearly, along with awesome camera tech being brilliantly strategically used. How this film was made forms an interesting part of its own story, too, complete with the ethical questions around if what they were doing was actually OK.
In one of the most masterful segments, Alex explains step-by-step how to get past the ‘Boulder Problem’ segment of the climb. It remains cinematic and doesn’t fall into feeling like a tutorial, but it makes pulling off this terrifying, near superhuman act seem pretty doable. The ensuing pay-off when Alex does it on the climactic free solo climb is pure exhilaration.
The film is fast-paced and at times has slightly more dialogue than it could. It would’ve been nice to have some more long, slow, quiet shots to emphasise the loneliness of free soloing, but I guess that would’ve risked spoiling what the filmmakers were going for here. I’m glad they did everything they did, as it resulted in this incredible documentary I count myself as very fortunate for having seen on the big screen.